The Autonomic Nervous System’s Role in Managing Stress Symptoms

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The Autonomic Nervous System’s Role in Managing Stress Symptoms

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Kevin Kunkel, MA, CMT, CYT, LMFT

Chronic stress can stay in your nervous system and affect your short- and long-term health.  It can impact every part of the body, leading to a weakened immune system, digestive disorders, heart and autoimmune diseases, chronic body tension or challenges healing from injuries, and more. We will always have stress, but we can learn to build internal resiliency to heal from past stressors and bounce back from current stress.

Normal path of stress

It is normal to have challenges throughout our day and in our lives. Our bodies, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to be exact, are designed to encounter even highly stressful situations, and then naturally return to a physiology that promotes proper rest, repair, and rejuvenation.   This rhythm of our nervous system has traditionally been described as having two parts: our “Go” or excitatory response and a “Stop” or rest and repair response.  The “Go” response is the ANS’s activation of our physiology in order to be in action and get our daily tasks done.  A more stressful situation will trigger a more powerful “Go” response calling for more resources to deal with the situation.  Whether the stress is rush hour traffic, a missed deadline, or a wild tiger chasing us, the same physiological response (the Fight or Flight response) is being made in our system:  adrenaline and stress hormones are pumped into our blood, our heartbeat and breath quicken, energy is diverted away from our digestive and reproductive organs into our arms and legs and heart, etc.  When the stressful situation is taken care of, our ANS naturally responds with the rest and repair response: our heartbeat and breath slow down, energy is directed back into proper digestion and our other organ functionings, and the stress hormones in our body are broken down and eliminated.

Stuck in Go – insufficient rest, repair, and healing.  

Our Fight or Flight response was designed to be a short-lived response to an immediate threat.  Unfortunately, we’ve grown accustomed in today’s modern life to an internal state of constantly pumping stress hormones into our system, diverting energy away from our digestive and other vital organs, and not returning to an adequate rest and repair response.  In addition, many amongst us have experienced chronic stress from a challenging home environment as a child that can cause one’s nervous system to be stuck on high activation and, as research shows, puts them at significant risk of adult onset of chronic health problems.   For others, a single overwhelming event such as a car accident, a surgery, or a death of a loved one, may have been too much charge in the nervous system for one’s system to handle.  This charge can then remain stuck in the autonomic nervous system, leaving the person’s ANS dysregulated and easily triggered to have the internal physiology and behaviors of the Fight or Flight response.  Often, a person’s body may simultaneously get stuck in the “Stop” response in its continuous attempt to try and turn down the “Go” response, or an unhealthy “Stop” response that occurs due to exhaustion from too much Fight or Flight response.   These on-going stuck physiological responses may eventually lead to a variety of possible breakdown scenarios in one’s body:  one’s heart and adrenals may become fatigued and weakened, digestion and other organs will be neglected and allow for dysfunctional symptoms, musculature tensions will create chronic pains and an inability for injuries to heal, one’s nerves may become frayed and be irritable anxious or unable to properly sleep, one’s immune system will be suppressed and will be less likely to heal from illnesses and fight off infections and diseases that may not manifest in a more balanced system.   Often, it is this break down of the body from stress that makes the difference between the manifestation of symptoms from disorders, or not.

Regulating your autonomic nervous system

While it is common for people to focus on treating the exact symptoms one is experiencing due to their body breaking down, it may be critical to re-regulate one’s autonomic nervous system in order to achieve symptom reduction and regain your health.

Exercising, eating well, and getting rest are some of the cornerstones of preparing your body to be regulated and resilient to stress.  Working with your breath and practicing being mindful of the sensations in your body are two other ways you can begin to regulate your autonomic nervous system on your own and decrease the effects of stress on your body.   Many people, however, will find working with a professional necessary to take back control of the regulation of their autonomic nervous system.  In particular, the field of Somatic Therapies deals specifically in working to rewire the autonomic nervous system, improving regulation, and increasing the body’s resiliency to stress and ability to feel coherent and whole again.   No matter which level of help you end up needing, you may find deeper levels of wellbeing by taking on the task of understanding and regulating your own body’s autonomic nervous system.

Kevin Kunkel, MA, CMT, CYT, LMFT is a Somatic and Massage Therapist as well as a Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor at the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine. You can Schedule an appointment by calling 310-451-8880 or emailing us at info@akashacenter.com

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